As the 2006-2007 school year nears, teachers across West Virginia are preparing to welcome students back to school with the promise of great things to come.
Many have spent the summer in school themselves, learning new strategies that build on their content knowledge and help them focus on high expectations.
West Virginia’s 20,000 teachers are some of the most experienced and dedicated professionals in the country and crucial in the quest to prepare the state’s nearly 280,000 students for the 21st century.
The average public school teacher in West Virginia is about 46 years old with about 18 years of classroom experience. A majority of them hold a master’s degree or higher. Yet under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, some of these veteran teachers are not considered highly qualified.
To meet that federal definition, it is not enough to graduate from a college teacher preparation program and meet rigorous state certification requirements that often exceed federal guidelines. To meet the No Child Left Behind definition of highly qualified, teachers also must go to great lengths to demonstrate subject competency even after decades in the classroom.
I know our teachers are competent, capable and caring. But under No Child Left Behind, some of these skilled professionals are being unfairly labeled because they do not meet the stringent federal definition of a highly qualified teacher.
The 1,200-page No Child Left Behind Act is very prescriptive and compliance-driven. It requires states to ensure that not just every classroom but also every core subject, such as math, science and English, has a highly qualified teacher. The law provides limited exceptions for special education teachers and others who teach multiple subjects.
Despite concerns with the law, West Virginia met the federal mandates and did so with numerous accolades. We were the ninth state to have our No Child Left Behind accountability plan approved. And we recently became one of the first states to win wholesale federal approval of our No Child Left Behind assessment plan by the U.S. Department of Education.
I am an adamant supporter of educational accountability and strongly believe in closing the achievement gap. No Child Left Behind has played an important role by helping us focus on this equity mission.
The basic intentions of No Child Left Behind -- quality schools and skilled teachers -- are good. However, I believe the law has left out the quality mission. The focus on testing and punishing failing schools can undermine education and ultimately student success.
The test-driven law has forced public school systems to aim for the middle in terms of student performance. In today’s world where our competitors are in China and India instead of another state, the middle is not good enough. Little or no mention is made of bringing all students to above mastery and distinguished levels of performance. It is the accomplishment of the quality mission that is essential to prepare students for the demands of the 21st century.
West Virginia recognizes the failed quality mission of No Child Left Behind and is taking steps to move beyond its minimum requirements of bringing all students to mastery levels of performance. The West Virginia Board of Education has made moving beyond mastery its No. 1 goal. Today’s graduates need to be problem solvers and effective communicators, who are proficient in core subjects to succeed in a global society. They also need to master thinking skills, information and communications technology literacy skills and life skills. They need to be globally aware and be literate in finance, economics and business.
I am extremely proud that West Virginia is the second state in the nation after North Carolina to enter into the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Under the leadership of the state Board of Education, Gov. Joe Manchin, the Legislature and numerous other partners, including the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia Education Association, the partnership has initiated a forward-thinking and ambitious plan to improve West Virginia’s educational system.
The 21st Century Partnership takes our state beyond the minimum thinking of No Child Left Behind. The plan includes dramatic improvements in the rigor and relevance of our curriculum and increases the difficulty level of the state assessment system. It also improves the quality of professional development in the areas of 21st century content, skills and tools, and supports innovative technology, science and mathematics initiatives.
We must move beyond this atmosphere of high-stakes testing to creating the best educational system in the world. This is a major challenge and I’m proud of our schools and our teachers for meeting this challenge.
Still, in the coming weeks I expect that parents and community members will begin to hear rumblings that some West Virginia teachers are not highly qualified under the No Child Left Behind definition. Know that I’m confident our teachers are not only certified and experienced, but effective at their jobs.
Assistant Secretary of Education Henry Johnson has said in letters to me and education officials in other states that no state was likely to meet the goal of 100 percent compliance in 2006. But we are committed to reaching that goal in the coming year.
The state Board of Education and I believe teachers need training to help them blend their strong subject mastery with the 21st century skills needed in today’s digital world. And we are providing the professional development they need to ensure student success.
We know quality teaching will push students beyond mastery of basic skills to become tomorrow’s better educated worker, who can manage complexity, solve problems and think critically, and I am committed to making that happen.
Dr. Paine is state superintendent of schools, overseeing West Virginia’s public schools.